Ipswich Town 0 Sheffield Wednesday 1

I am on the train to Ipswich for the last home match of the season at Portman Road. My fellow passengers are mostly male. Opposite me is a man who looks like he’s about eighty, he has thin blue lips and a white moustache, but it’s nature that’s done that to him, he hasn’t dressed up for the football, he’s not regretting that he didn’t have any face paints. Another man, probably in his seventies shares the hamster like facial features of Kenny Jacket, whilst another has to ask people to excuse him as he passes down the train to and from the lavatory because of his rotund figure; he wears a T-shirt that says “Weekend Offender”, he is probably a Sheffield Wednesday supporter; we know that northerners drink too much beer and are therefore obese. His northern accent is the clincher.
At Ipswich station there are two policemen in the foyer and three over the road outside the Station Hotel and another two guarding the path down to the car park beyond the bridge over the river. Are they expecting trouble or are they just there to tell people the time? The sun is shining warmly on this bright spring day and there aren’t many people about, although several of the ones that are about are wearing football shirts. Portman Road is a tad busier than usual for half past one on a match day as people stand about waiting for the turnstiles to open. A man wrestles wide-eyed and open-mouthed with a tomato sauce smeared sausage in a bun, which looks like it could slither from his grasp at any moment. The burger concessions, programme dealer34344114435_ee4e4ab848_o and souvenir seller aren’t busy and a car park attendant33960112170_38f8438cda_o sits down on the job. Up round the bend in St Jude’s Tavern the usual football Saturday clientele are there, mostly world weary , white haired and balding, one of them shouts “McCarthy Out” as he gets up to go. After two pints of very tasty Earl Soham Victoria Bitter (£3.20 a pint) and a chat with a friend called Mick which covers football, politics, street-drinkers and getting old, I get up and go too. The season finale beckons like a bin bag that must be put out for the morning refuse collection.

In Portman Road a late arriving coach disgorges Wednesdayites onto the pavement as33502410324_5cc2d0c12c_o two policeman look on; I like to think they have individually welcomed everyone on that bus to Ipswich and wished them a pleasant stay. Northern voices chant about going somewhere and not knowing or caring how they are going to get there; the somewhere it transpires is the Premier League. They should be careful what they wish for. Three Star Wars storm troopers walk past.

Inside the ground the atmosphere builds amongst the Sheffielders who are in high spirits anticipating clinching a place in the promotion play-offs; there are 2,003 of them in a reported crowd of 19,000. A mooted boycott of the match by Town fans who don’t like Mick McCarthy doesn’t seem to have happened; or not so as anyone would notice. The Ipswich crowd look on impassively. It’s the fag end of the season, the empty husk that once contained hopes and dreams now dashed on the terraces like the guts and brains of a piece of roadkill. There should be a minute’s silence in its memory or seeing as it’s football where the crowd aren’t trusted to shut-up, a minute’s applause; but that would smack of irony which is a bit sophisticated for us football fans.

The match begins. Sheffield Wednesday are wearing black shirts and day-glo orange shorts which look like they would be useful in case of floodlight failure or to council highway workers in warm weather. The pitch is well watered and some players slip over. After eight minutes in an apparently unrelated incident 33960241910_3e42a3155f_otwo men with buckets and mops walk along the front of the stand towards a sign that says Exit & Toilets. Sheffield press the Ipswich goal in the manner of the wolf in the story of the the Three Little Pigs and cause few problems for the Ipswich defence and fewer for goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski. Ipswich in turn cause even fewer problems for the Wednesday defence and goalkeeper, but aren’t playing too badly in the context of the season as a whole.  A beach ball that looks like an oversized football 33960221220_0b8d2123e7_oalmost makes it onto the pitch, but a steward takes up the challenge of chasing it along the pitchside and then having caught it squeezing it between himself and the perimeter wall to deflate it. It takes 25 minutes for the Ipswich drums in the Sir Bobby Robson Stand to strike up, but they could only have been passing through as they soon stop and are not heard again. The Wednesday fans are enjoying themselves indulging in some schadenfreude as to Joy Division’s tune they sing “Leeds, Leeds are falling apart, again”. At about twenty to four Ipswich’s Cole Skuse, who will be played by George Clooney in the film of the season, is cautioned for some arm grabbing by referee Mr Coote whose surname makes up a fine threesome with his two lugubrious sounding assistants Mr Lugg and Mr Blunden.

Half-time arrives as it always does and I scan the programme (£3.00) in which Chief Executive Ian Milne amusingly dismisses the season 34302972446_d56ce491e9_oin his opening paragraph by saying “I am not going to repeat the reasons or mitigating circumstances for a disappointing season”. Oh go on ‘Milney’, please do. Elsewhere good luck is wished to the club’s PR manager Jade Cole, who is departing Portman Road after ten years. From her picture she looks like she must have been about twelve when she got the job. Did she jump or was she 34344005625_4eca835255_opushed? She didn’t do much of a job with that 500% season ticket price rise for the Under 11’s or the overnight change in the qualifying age for concessions from 60 to 65 did she? But with policies like that may be her position had become untenable? Doing PR for President Assad might be easier.

The second-half begins with renewed vigour from Sheffield Wednesday who barely let Ipswich have the ball at all now. On their right, number 33,the compact Ross Wallace ‘prods and probes’ and from the far end of the pitch he looks like a poor man’s Mathieu Valbuena, the Olympique Lyon player, about whom incidentally, French TV & Radio journo Guy Carlier has written a book called “Qui veut tuer Mathieu Valbuena” (Who wants to kill Mathieu Valbuena”). Wallace hits a post with a shot which deceives Bartosz Bialkowski into thinking he can reach it.

From an Ipswich perspective the second half is absolutely awful, they do nothing of any note or which could be deemed entertaining and are dominated by the council road men from South Yorkshire. Is a lack of spending in the transfer market by owner Marcus Evans to blame? Sheffield Wednesday meanwhile clearly have money to burn as two men with holdalls containing wet sponges, rather than just the usual one run on to the pitch to treat Ross Wallace when he is down injured. There are seventeen minutes left and a muffled “Come On Ipswich” is heard, but it is only fleeting and I ask myself if it was real or just a ghostly memory of better days carried up the steps and across the seats on the cold breeze blowing down Portman Road from the shade behind the Cobbold Stand.

This looks like it is going to be a goalless draw, but then with thirteen minutes to go Sheffield Wednesday number five, Kieran Lee deftly flicks the ball into the Ipswich goal from close range to make the assembled northerners very happy and make the Ipswich public probably do nothing more than roll their eyes, if they react at all. To the tune of ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’ the Sheffield Wednesday fans sing “ We are Wednesday, We are Wednesday, Carlos Is our King”, a song first heard on the streets of Madrid in 1975 with the accession to the Spanish throne of Juan Carlos the first in the wake of the Franco regime. It won’t be a goalless draw after all I muse, it will probably be a 1-0 win to the away team, and so it proves.

Between that goal and the final whistle I ponder whether the advert for Greene King IPA34344022375_6f10e1d29f_o beer on one landing on the stairs in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand and the instruction that alcoholic drinks are not allowed in view of the pitch34185961352_bcd70e1d81_o on the next is symbolic of the sense of promise followed by disappointment that prevails at Portman Road. Just to compound that, as the match ends and as the half-hearted Suffolk boos are booed the stadium announcer tells us that the Town players will come back out from the dressing room to do an end of season lap of honour around the ground, but then adds that of course it is an offence punishable by death for supporters to enter onto the pitch. Thinking back, he may not have mentioned punishment by death, but nevertheless it’s as if those who run Ipswich Town can’t just concentrate on the positive things, they have to put you in your place as well; miserable bastards, sucking the life and the love from the game.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t wait for that lap of dis-honour and am rewarded by getting the 5.00pm train from which I stare out of the window and watch Ipswich receding into the distance, forgetting a forgettable season and remembering a not-that-faraway place where it is permitted to consume alcohol in view of the pitch, but drunks probably plot to murder Mathieu Valbuena.


SC Amiens 4 Gazelec Ajaccio 0

Amiens is an hour and a half by car from Calais and about half way to Paris; that makes it a handy place to stop when travelling between the two and that’s partly why I turn up there on a freezing cold afternoon in early February. The other reason is that due to meticulous planning my visit coincides with SC Amiens’ Ligue 2 home match with Gazelec Ajaccio, a club born out of the Corsican town’s gas and electric company a bit like Colchester’s own Gas Rec’ Football Club, but more successful.
Amiens is an interesting town with plenty to enjoy including some rather fabulous post war concrete buildings including the Tour Perret , named after the architect, which is opposite the also impressive Gare du Nord (main train station). But with another five hours until the match, I pay a visit to Amiens’ fabulous Gothic Cathedral. There’s barely another soul in this wonderful, soaring, spiky building,32839459925_b577c835ea_o which may be because the draft blowing through the west door amplifies the cold, which the towering ancient stones store, chill and radiate so that stood in the centre of the nave it feels even colder than it does outside. Chilled to the bone, but spiritually enriched the only thing to do is find out about buses to the stadium and then may be find a bar.

The Stade de la Licorne (Unicorn Stadium) is on the edge of town and has masses of car parking all around it, but I need to atone for driving to Paris and back so I choose to catch the bus in order to help save the planet.
The bloke in the Tourist Information Office tells me that the Football Special leaves the Gare du Nord at five past seven from Quai D. How do I find that I ask, and he tells me to just follow the crowds of football supporters. I get to the Gare du Nord at about ten to seven, but where are the football supporters and where is Quai D? I’m buggered if I can see either. With an increasing sense of panic I find Quai B and Quai C and then Quai E but not Quai D. I ask where is Quai D but either no one understands my French or they just won’t say because they don’t want to share their Ligue 2 football with someone from the land of Brexit; I see their point. But then an English voice says that the number 7 bus to Saleux goes close to the ground and leaves from Quai E where we are stood; the stop to alight at is called Megacite. The Englishman is going to the match too and having paid my fare of 1.30 euros I sit with him on the bus where he reveals that he is a scout, for of all clubs Norwich City. Most of the Ametis (a sort of Amiens Corporation Transport) buses stop running at about 8 o’clock, but the football special is special for a reason and it runs back to the Gare du Nord at 10pm. The last time the Norwich scout watched Amiens he had to get a taxi back to the city centre because he didn’t know about the football special (snigger), but in the spirit of détente I share the secret.
After a twenty minute journey the bus itself rather cleverly and very helpfully announces our arrival at Megacite. Over the road from the bus stop, the Stade de La Licorne is a beautiful thing; four uniform ‘trays’ of seats beneath four graceful, transparent, gently arcing metal framed, glazed rooves, which reach up high over the seats, perhaps like the windows of a certain nearby Gothic cathedral. As is usually the case in France, the stadium is owned and was built by the municipal authority and the French still possess the civic pride once known in England that forces them to make a statement with their architecture. Stade de la Licorne33382528815_00e896d699_o is a wonderful structure. Sadly the beauty of the architecture was perhaps not altogether matched by either the construction standards or the ongoing maintenance budget. Although the stadium only opened in 1999, the glazing of the roof has failed and has all been removed, leaving the stadium skeletal and open to the elements, but nevertheless on a dry evening it is still a thing of beauty.
One of the greatest things about French football, particularly Ligue 2 football, and proof of France’s cultural and moral superiority over England is the price of tickets. It is just 25 minutes before kick-off and I purchase a seat in the stand behind the goal for 10 euros. Had I planned ahead and bought it on-line it would have cost me just 8 euros. The best seats in the stadium can be had on the night for 21 Euros. Pick the bones out of that Ipswich Town and Colchester United; and the rest of the over-priced Football League.
Security getting into French stadiums is tight nowadays and everyone is frisked and asked to reveal what, if anything might be concealed under their bobble hat, beanie or beret. Before going up in to the stand I seek out a souvenir of my visit and spot two young women flogging stuff from behind a trestle table under a gazebo. “Avez-vous un petit fanion?” I ask, which might sound somewhat risque if this were a Carry On film, but the French are much more grown-up about such things than the English. Sadly they had no petits fanions (pennants), only replica shirts. My ticket allocates me a seat, but tonight there are about six and a half thousand people in a stadium that currently seats twice that number so I just sit where I fancy, although there is a dense group of supporters immediately behind the goal. these are the Amiens Ultras.
After giving me time to absorb the atmosphere, the referee Monsieur Sylvain Palhies signals kick-off with Amiens attacking the goal just in front of me. There are a series of tendon snapping challenges and a good bit of diving about early on and Mr Plahies struggles to get to grips with it all, leaving some of the worst assaults unpunished and booking players whose crimes were doubtful. But, the malice nevertheless starts to leave the game and it settles down into a stale boring contest. I don’t envy the Norwich scout trying to spot latent talent amongst this lot.
The Amiens Ultras are enjoying it all it seems however, with their two ‘cheerleaders’OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA elevated at the front of the stand, stood with their backs to the ‘action’ as they lead the crowd with their chants. The noise from the Ultras is pretty much constant and doesn’t rise and fall at all to reflect events on the pitch; but then not too much is happening on the pitch to excite. The Ultras’ drone is in some ways the perfect soundtrack for what isn’t happening on the pitch.
My attention is drawn by the Gazelec supporters at the far end. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere is a row or two of about twenty people near the front of the stand and then at the very back of the stand, fifteen or twenty rows back, sitting on the very end of the row is a single person who looks like they’re wrapped in a duvet. The Amiens support at the other end is not without interest either; directly behind the goal is a panda; or may be a person in a panda costume. The panda just sits there looking bored and doesn’t appear to be a mascot, it really is just a panda;OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA okay, or a person in a panda costume. It reminds me of a book by French writer Pascal Garnier entitled The Panda Theory, although only because the word Panda is in the title, it’s a French book and I happen to be in France. Good book though, you should read it, it’s only short. But it’s a bit surreal isn’t it? A panda at a football match, although to be fair we’re not that far from Belgium.
Half–time arrived as half time does and I thought I’d have look around, may be get something to eat and a drink. I looked for a food kiosk in the stand but didn’t find one, so I went out of the stand and round the back. It was here that I was surprised to find the scruffiest, dirtiest looking burger van I think I had ever seen. Inside were what looked like three rather obese heavy metal fans in jeans and black tee-shirts huddling over a griddle. There was a clutch of unhealthy looking scruffs forming a small scrum around the counter. This was not what I had expected. This was not haute cuisine, it wasn’t even pommes frites, it was greasy chips. Northern France is chip country, it can put your greasiest, nastiest British chippy to shame; their near neighbours the Belgians invented chips and Northern France is a lot like Northern Britain. It’s grim up north and don’t you forget it.
After a stroll back into the stand I settled for a coffee from the club’s own buvette; an espresso of course, which was a blessing because I wouldn’t have wanted a filthy great mug full of the stuff, it was an instant espresso but it only cost a euro. I decided to settle down for the second half on the other side of the Ultras. Carefully sitting down, so as not to spill my hot drink, I looked down the near touchline and spotted a unicorn. Okay, so it was a person in a unicorn costume.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA He was a sad unicorn, he trudged along the edge of the pitch, head down watching each step he took; his horn drooped morosely and swung a little from side to side. As he approached the corner flag the unicorn/ person raised his arms and what happened next was horrifying; he removed his head. I was aghast. I have read that to remove your head in public is simply not permitted if you are a club mascot. It would result in instant dismissal. But this Unicorn clearly didn’t give a shit. I watched him, as in no hurry he went through the security gate and up into the stand; he was a slightly stooping, grey-haired man in his sixties and he sat down next to a younger blond woman, may be his daughter, may be not. He had no shame, a unicorn from the neck down he sat and watched the second half like everyone else, as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world. A group of three men about the same age as the unicorn could clearly read the surprise and shock on my face; they laughed and shouted across to me and laughed again. I think they said it was the only job he could get or no one else would do it, I’m not sure, my French is crap.
Traumatised, I was pleased beyond words when the second half started, although the night was now growing increasingly cold. Fortunately, I had just twelve minutes to wait before Amiens brought life to the Unicorn with a goal from Bakaye Dibassy. From there on Amiens didn’t look back and seemed transformed from the team who had slogged out the first half. Nevertheless, it took until the final ten minutes of the match, when the cold was really biting, for Amiens to confirm their superiority through the traditional medium of goals. Substitute Harrison Manzala lead the way with ten minutes left and Aboubakar Kamara followed suit two minutes later whilst Guessouma Fofana left us waiting until the final minute for his contribution to the scoreline.
As the game draws to a close the half-man, half-unicorn gets up, moves down the stand, puts on his head and shuffles along the touchline to stand between the dugouts. With the final whistle the unicorn trots on to the pitch uncertainlyOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA to do the best an ageing man in a baggy costume can to celebrate Amiens’ climb to second place in Ligue 2, without frightening the younger people in the crowd that is. Sadly I cannot hang about long to watch the post-match fun because it’s ten to ten and the Football Special back to town leaves at 10 o’clock. I hurry out from the stand and down the stairs where a young boy is kissing the unicorn on the club badge that is painted on the landing wall; his mother drags him away with a horrified expression on her face. I hasten out of the gates and across the car park boarding the Ametis bendibus with five minutes to spare. The Norwich scout isn’t far behind and the bus sets off a good 90% empty with only about ten or so people on board. I can only think that les amienois have stayed behind to celebrate with the unicorn or check up on the panda, or may be their backsides froze to their seats and they are stranded inside the stadium.
The journey back to town takes no more than ten minutes and bidding my new found Norwich chum adieu and bon chance, I get off the bus just round the corner from my hotel. Back in my hotel room I find my wife drinking wine and eating olives in the recent company of Adrien Rabiot, Marco Verratti and Edinson Cavani who have been on the telly beating Girondins de Bordeaux 3-0; so it’s nice to know we’ve both had a lovely time. Allez Amiens!

France is a republic and has had almost as many revolutions as we’ve had Labour governments, so it is obviously superior and it’s a country that respects intellect and loves a grand statement; Britain and more especially England just can’t compete with that. England is home to too many small minded bigots, who can’t see further than their garden gates unless there’s a drink in it, and if they do, they try and make what’s beyond into an extension of their boring little suburban gardens with their neat little lawns and poxy bedding plants. That’s why we got bloody Brexit. May be it’s not our fault, may be it was the ruling class, who closed ranks behind the monarchy in the time of Napoleon and somehow made you all Royalists, whilst the rest of Europe left feudalism behind and embraced social democracy.
This in a manner of speaking explains why I love France and French football and why I rocked up in Amiens on a freezing night in February at a stadium with a broken roof whilst my wife, who is not as angry and disillusioned with the world as me, stayed back in our hotel room watching Bordeaux v PSG on the telly and drinking wine.

Ipswich Town 3 Newcastle United 1

It is Easter Monday, and it is a weekend of two league matches for every team. Traditionally, at least one of the games is a local derby. In keeping with tradition, the Football League, or EFL as it now calls or rather brands itself, sent Ipswich to Burton-On-Trent on Good Friday and has today paired them with Newcastle United the club in the second division that is furthest away from Ipswich. There’s nothing the fixture planners at EFL seem to like better than the thought of football supporters making long journeys in Bank Holiday traffic. But happily for Ipswich supporters the match today is at Portman Road, so what do they care.

This afternoon I am in the company of a Newcastle United supporter who has driven from Stockport, but he forsakes his car to make the final leg of the journey by train, because it seems like the responsible thing to do. My wife has joined us because she wants to meet this ‘Geordie’ who has impressed her by goading me on Facebook. 33944499342_be7ecabcc4_oFrom the railway station the three of us stroll up Portman Road towards the St Jude’s Tavern. It’s about 1:30 and Portman Road is much busier than usual at this time on a match day. Zero the sniffer dog is out and about and so are plenty of strangers in black and white striped shirts. It’s somehow appropriate that the Newcastle United kit should be monochrome because all their greatest moments were back in the days of black and white film.

There is already a good trade at the kiosks for match day programmes. Today has been anointed ‘Sir Bobby Robson day’ (presumably because he managed both clubs and was a Newcastle supporter as a boy) and the programme is a 100 page ‘special’ which includes a Sir Bobby Robson tribute. It costs a quid more than usual and a donation from the programme sales will go to the Bobby Robson Foundation. Also celebrating the day is the local paper, which is selling ‘Bobby Robson Goodie Bags’. The paper flogs ordinary, anonymous ‘goody bags’ at most games, so I anticipate may be a Bobby Robson novelty hat or a plastic effigy of the great man in this one; but for a pound all that’s on offer is the usual copy of the East Anglian Daily Times, a bottle of water and a packet of crisps all in a clear polythene bag.

Up at St Jude’s Tavern we chat and decide the result doesn’t matter as long as there are plenty of incidents in the game to make us laugh. St Jude’s is busy with pre-match drinkers, but from the long list of real beers 33289899543_015258db88_othere is only time to sample two before we have to head back round the corner and down the hill to Portman Road. The streets behind the stands are thronged with folk going to the match, hurrying along to their allotted turnstile; it’s like a real life version of LS Lowry’s ‘Going to the match’, or it would be if it wasn’t for the modern obesity epidemic. It will be a big gate today with the club having given season ticket holders the chance to buy up to four additional seats for a tenner each; added to which of course it is a Bank Holiday, it is ‘Sir Bobby Robson day’ (I feel like there should be a cheer after I type that) and the visitors are Newcastle United, the best supported team in the division. The ‘perfect storm’ is avoided however, as Ipswich have been rubbish this season and so there is no local ‘feel good factor’ and consequently the official attendance is over 4,500 short of capacity at 25,684.

We part company with our Newcastle supporting friend as he heads off to join those of his ilk in the Cobbold Stand, whilst my wife and I head for the monastic calm of the Co-op Stand upper tier. Soothed by the balm that is Sir Bobby Robson day, the biggest crowd of the season is largely a happy one and there isn’t the toxic, moronic, vitriolic atmosphere of the derby game with Norwich; the only other time more than 20,000 attended Portman Road this season. Once the game starts it becomes apparent that this could be the best Ipswich have played all season. Newcastle are frankly disappointing considering they have been top of the league most weeks since last August, but Ipswich give a far better account of themselves than usual and there is no injustice as they take the lead courtesy of Freddie Sears just a few minutes before half-time . However, there has been a private party going on in the seat next to me since about a quarter past three, for that is when my Pompey owning wife (she’s a shareholder) learned that Portsmouth had scored at Notts County, potentially clinching promotion to the Third Division. She’s barely paid attention to what’s happening in front of her since then, being consumed with what another team of Blues are doing to some another team of Magpies 225 kilometres away in Nottingham.

At half-time I find it is necessary to run the gauntlet of the sickly fragrance of the urinal deodoriser blocks that are so redolent of football stadia. Along with frying onions, the whiff of ‘urinal cake’ always conjures up the thrill of the professional football for me. Relieved, I return to my seat in time to catch the tail end of another tribute to Sir Bobby Robson in the form of some competitive cheerleading, 33301970703_13182d8c3e_zas a dozen or more girls in white shorts and tops and a few boys in tracky bottoms jump and throw themselves about in honour of Sir Bobby in time to some energetic music, including an up-tempo version of Sir Bobby’s favourite ‘My Way’.

The second half continues in a similar vein to the first with Newcastle still disappointing and possibly still missing their 1970’s striker John Tudor, who the historian in me would have loved to have seen line up alongside Marcus Stewart. But in the 62nd minute Newcastle all of sudden and without warning cut through the Ipswich team ‘like a knife through butter’ leaving former Town starlet Daryl Murphy with a chance he can’t miss, and he doesn’t. However, nothing really changes but the score and after another seven minutes David McGoldrick restores Ipswich’s advantage as Freddie Sears’ cross carves open the Newcastle defence albeit with just a hint of offside.
Without any sense of irony or apparent memory of the many matches that they have witnessed in more or less total silence, the Ipswich supporters in the Sir Bobby Robson stand 34008874062_e314998022_ochant “You’re not singing anymore” to the 1,900 odd Newcastle fans who, it has to be said, aren’t singing anymore. Meanwhile 225 kilometres to the northwest, Notts County equalised not long after half-time and the Pompey party next to me is for the time being on hold.

Ipswich are playing pretty well and if either team is likely to score again it is them. The taciturn Town fans are thawing out and some of them in the East of England Co-operative Stand dare to break into a rhythmic clap as their team passes, moves and generally threatens the Magpie’s goal in the way that proper football teams do. Then Portsmouth take the lead through Jamal Lowe; the afternoon moves up a gear and does so again on the cusp of time-added-on as Lowe scores Pompey’s third and three minutes into time-added-on Ipswich also get their third and most satisfying goal with the poetically named Emrys Huws despatching an inevitably spectacular volley from a lonely position at the far post. The game ends soon after and the Town support is as ecstatic as it knows how to be and Portsmouth, the biggest fan-owned club in the Football League are promoted back to Division Three after four seasons.

We meet up with our friend from the North again at the railway station and I offer him my condolences; to his credit he takes the result like a man, or at least like someone who has supported an under-achieving football club all of his life. However, Sir Bobby Robson and his day notwithstanding, in my household it is the Portsmouth result that really matters today and at home later that evening a champagne cork pops.


Burton Albion 1 Ipswich Town 2

An evening game in Burton-On-Trent is the type of fixture which is always likely to be recalled years later as an “I was there” memory. Travelling to obscure provincial towns such as Burton, Scunthorpe or Hartlepool is one of the many joys of football, for these are the towns that one wouldn’t usually visit; they are the towns that are the butt of music hall jokes; “Burton-On-Trent? I went there once, it was closed” as Ted Rogers or some other alleged comedian might have quipped when not mentally abusing his mother-in-law.
So when I first saw the fixture list last June I instantly singled this fixture out as one not to miss. I had decided to be environmentally friendly and use the supporters bus from Ipswich (fare: £24 for the 540km round trip) and I arrive in Portman Road in good time for the 2.30 pm departure. The buses aren’t even here yet, but gradually turn up at intervals, firstly bus No2, then No4, then No1 and finally the bus I am allocated to, No3. The buses fill up with the usual weirdoes and misfits who follow the Town and about ten minutes later than advertised depart for far off Burton. The bus driver, as well as steering the vehicle would seem to have appointed himself as entertainments officer as he tries to elicit some sort of cheery response from his passengers with a cheekie-chappie routine. For once I am thankful for the taciturn nature of the average Town fan as the driver’s attempts fall on very stoney ground; this isn’t some sort of holiday trip to Magaluf, we’re going to Burton-On-Bloody-Trent for the footie. Get with the programme man.

The journey seems both tortuous and torturous with pick-ups in Newmarket and then Bury St Edmunds, so I read Johan Cruyff’s autobiography to pass the time, which only partly works, because it’s not that good. After a half-hour stop at the demi-monde that is Leicester services, although it does straddle the motorway impressively, we drive into rain and arrive on the edge of Burton at around a half past six.

East Staffordshire seems to be a land of rude-red brick buildings, canals, bridges and lush greenery. It’s still raining as I disembark from the bus and head for what my pre-trip research showed to be the nearest pub to the ground. Just a couple of minutes’ walk away The Great Northern stands at the end of terraced Wetmore Road; a basic corner-of-the-street boozer and all the better for that, it is busy with pre-football drinkers. Two pints of locally-brewed Bridge Bitter, product of the Burton Bridge Brewery go down very nicely indeed, and for only £2.90 each, a good 30 pence cheaper than the cheapest beer in Ipswich; why is beer always cheaper up north? Are malt, yeast, water and hops cheaper up here too?

Burton’s claim to fame is its beer brewing history, the result of the chemical make-up of the local water, which is high in calcium sulphate and brings out the crisp, bitterness of the hops. There was a brewing boom in Burton in the 1890’s, which coincided with agricultural depression in Suffolk due to low grain prices and many labourers left Suffolk for Burton including members of my great-grandmother’s family. Trains were laid on to transport people to Burton with the added inducement of free beer on the journey. How ironic that today it is a crime to carry alcohol on our bus between the two towns.

At about 7:25 the pub rapidly empties and the moment has come to wrench oneself away from the warmth and moreishness of the beer and head out into the evening damp. I make a detour via the club shop where an attractive lady in a smart grey suit tells me upon application that the Billy Brewer mascot doll OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcosts £10, and so does the Bettie Brewer doll; for some reason we both find that funny. I decide it’s the way she tells them; the Burton accent seems warm and bright; the bus driver should try it may be. I buy a programme and head for the away terrace.

Burton Albion’s Pirelli stadium sounds like it should be Turin, and the main entrance looks like a car showroom, but selling Nissan’s not Ferraris. If not a car showroom it might be a cinema or some other edge of town commercial box, 34046458345_95a6a39871_zall breeze blocks and sheet metal. If it was in Italy or France a Pirelli Stadium might wittily look like a tyre and it would be architect designed. But this is England, so it’s a compromise between a B&Q and a John Lewis at Home. But that said, three sides of this ground are terracing, and terracing with a decent rake with no stanchions holding up the roof, so although the stands are small (ground capacity under 7,000) the view is pretty good, even if the tickets are £20 a go.

I walk to the end of the corridor at the back of the stand and go down on to the terrace taking up a spot in the right hand corner of the Curva Nord, or Russell Roof Tiles Stand as it is more prosaically known. Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, there is not a tile in sight on what is a tin roof, but I am close to the Burton supporters and Bettie Brewer33889266012_c448cb45c0_o, the more disturbing looking half of the Burton Albion Billy and Bettie Brewer mascot partnership. The view down the pitch is a beautiful sight; lush, green, wet turf shining beneath the floodlights on sticks which in turn shine through the fine, heavy, rain. 33661602100_481ebd645a_o

Predictably perhaps the football is not as beautiful as the setting, but there are moments of excitement as Ipswich have a ‘goal’ disallowed and there are corners and things for both teams. I however am particularly taken with the advertisement across the back of the stand behind the goal at the other end of the ground for Don Amott, ‘King of Caravans’; that’s a branch of royalty I hadn’t heard of previously and which sounds like it has roots in south Essex. But despite being a king, the King of Caravans is no Duke of York or Prince of Wales; he’s never had a pub named after him.

The first half is goalless and a young woman behind me is clearly disappointed when her date tells her that there is another 45 minutes that she must witness. I take a look at the programme (£3)34007201596_1ef33038ff_o and whilst I have nothing against Lloyd Dyer I enjoy the photograph of him on page 43 in which he looks as if he might burst into tears. Half-time seems longer than usual for some reason, but eventually play resumes and at about five to nine Ipswich score a goal. Former Town player Luke ‘Reg’ Varney sending a ‘bullet’ deflection into his own net from a corner kick, although Town captain Luke Chambers seems to try and claim the goal by running off excitedly in front of the Town fans and leaping about madly. Gradually, a procession of stewards in outsized day-glo coats amble across the front of the stand to head off the somewhat unlikely possibility of a pitch invasion from the Ipswich supporters.33661590350_21f4341b0c_o

The Town fans are naturally ‘pleased as punch’ and unsportingly goad the Burtonians with chants of “How shit must you be, we’re winning away” which, whilst mildly self-deprecating isn’t original or witty having previously been sung by Birmingham and Nottingham supporters at Portman Road. Ipswich are probably the better of the two teams and just about deserve their lead, although Burton are more entertaining, with their number three looking like a tattooed hippie, or may be Roy Wood. Ipswich’s most exciting player usually, on-loan Tom Lawrence, is relatively quiet, and his World War One conscript style haircut is very dull compared to Roy Wood’s.

It’s not a great game, but it’s okay and probably the best I have seen Ipswich play this year and so they are worthy of their second goal which turns up at about twenty five past nine courtesy of Freddie Sears. Ipswich’s lead looks safe, but to make things interesting the referee awards Burton a penalty with four minutes of normal time remaining after Luke ‘Reg’ Varney collapses at the feet of Myles Kenlock. The Brewers score and I should be biting my nails with anxiety, but I’m not and don’t know if that is because of confidence or indifference, it’s probably a bit of both. If it is confidence it proves justified and after both teams almost score again, but don’t, the referee Mr Langford tells us through the medium of his whistle that it’s time to go home. Ipswich’s players make the most of a rare opportunity to lap up some applause and appreciation from their supporters and the crowd of 5236 file away in to the night.

The bus journey home is thankfully made without any stops at all and having departed Burton just before 10 pm we arrive back at Portman Road shortly after 1 am. Witnessing your team win away from home is a particular joy of football and this combined with good local beer, terraces, rain and floodlights has made this a memorable day.

Debenham Leisure Centre FC 1 Framlingham Town 4

A journey through the Suffolk countryside on a bright, sunny and unseasonably warm early April afternoon is the lovely prelude to this game, this local derby. Unfortunately, whilst it is easy enough to get to Debenham on a bus for 3pm on a Saturday afternoon, it is not possible to get back again unless you live in Mendlesham or somewhere on the bus route between the two villages. The upshot is that I have had to drive to the Debenham Leisure Centre, and if you do the same, rather than say walk several miles across the fields from Framlingham or Diss, I would recommend getting here in good time because the car park can get full up.
Debenham Leisure Centre FCOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA was founded as recently as 1991 and it is odd that a largish village like Debenham should have to wait so long to have a football club, then when it did happen the club name should include the words Leisure Centre. But in the comparatively short space of 26 years they have progressed as far as the Eastern Counties Premier League, although they currently reside in the First Division, which is step six of the non-league pyramid, or Division Ten if ‘The Championship’ is Division Two.
A yellow and black sign in the car park announces that this is where the football club, known as the Hornets, hang out, but there is no turnstile into the ‘stadium’ and you have to work out that the access is through the leisure centre itself. But once inside it’s still not clear where to go; there are two choices, through the leisure centre bar or down a short corridor which appears to lead to the outside, which if my memory of other football grounds isn’t failing me is where the match is likely to be played. Using logic I opt for the corridor and of course I am wrong and a gentleman older than me appears like the shopkeeper in Mr Benn to ask if I will be watching the match. I am advised that entry is through the bar and he can’t understand why people try to get in the way that I tried to. May be because they can’t understand which way they are supposed to enter I venture. But there is a sign he says. But does it say which way to go I ask. As mysteriously as he appeared he disappears and I find myself in the bar where my accomplice, who I have not mentioned up until now, buys me a pint of cask Speckled Hen in a plastic cup.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Surprisingly perhaps and all credit to the leisure centre staff for this, it tastes pretty darn good. Pints in hand we pay our £5 entry fee to a friendly man with a pint mug full of banknotes who is stood behind a table, and I also purchase a copy of the impressively cheap match programme33948024985_c1fb66a745_o (50p).
We sit outside in the sun at a circular wooden picnic table. A grey-haired man in some sort of commemorative Liverpool shirt brings us bright orange wrist bands to wear,33817958691_1bcae0aa48_o to show that we have paid to watch the game. Apparently the football club has a problem with people watching the matches without paying; this is because there are so many ways into the ground which are unchecked. I will later find what seems to be a public footpath crossing the site which confirms that this club is on a hiding to nothing. After a little while a couple in their late sixties or early seventies sit opposite. The man reads his programme behind his sunglasses and sups a beer. The woman tells him a couple of times that she is enjoying her cup of coffee; “It’s nice sitting here in the sun” she says, but her comment provokes nothing, nothing but silence, it is as if her words had never been uttered. No affirmation, no contradiction, nothing. Another man arrives and says something bland about football and the two men have a conversation. Her cup drained, the woman says how much she enjoyed her coffee, “I suppose you’ll want another one at half-time then” says the man.
A little while later a rounded man walks past our table to the main block of the leisure centre carrying two large jugs of a yellow/orange liquid. Making our own entertainment my accomplice and I earnestly tell each other that under new FA doping rules everyone in both teams must be tested for drug use. At this level of course that is prohibitively expensive so each team is tested in one go, hence a single jug of yellow liquid from each. It’s a team game after all. How we laugh at our own joke.

Time moves on and it’s nearly 3 o’clock; time to take up a position by the rail to watch the match. The Friend’s Meadow ground or Maitland’s as it was formerly known is a basic but neat ground with a small pre-fabricated


stand containing seats straddling the halfway line and a concrete path around the rest of the perimeter. The dugouts are opposite the stand and there is a sturdy post and rail fence around the pitch with a number of advertisement boards attached to it, bearing the names of assorted local plumbers, builders and hairdressers. Behind one goal is a small mound, a grassy knoll, behind that, bushes, a hedge, a field, a tractor. There is a regimented line of poplars some 80 yards beyond the far side of the pitch with a hedge beneath. Daisies and dandelions are beginning to bloom on the mound and on the pitch.

At last it’s 3 pm and Framlingham Town, wearing their kit of green and white hoops kick off towards the council houses at the edge of Debenham. About a quarter past three Framlingham score a goal, not undeservedly because they have been much the better team, quicker and brighter, they pass the ball whereas Debenham in their black-sleeved yellow shirts are slow, less skilful and dull by comparison. The Debenham number 11 seems unable to approach a Framlingham player without fouling him and is spoken to by the short referee, Mr Willmore.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The number 11 doesn’t look very contrite and predictably when he fouls again, the referee brandishes a yellow card in his general direction. A full-faced bearded man leaning on the rail pleads the number 11’s case. “What was that for? That was piss poor” He opines, adding that he hopes the referee is going to be consistent, which is an odd wish given that he is apparently getting his decisions wrong.

The sun beats down as best it can in April forcing my accomplice to make use of his hoodie to protect his delicate northern European complexion. Framlingham continue to be the better team. Debenham just boot the ball forward for their forwards to run after; “Foot race” shouts the bearded man. What other sort of race is there in a football match? A horse race, slow-bicycle race? Let’s kick racism out of football. At about twenty five to four the Debenham number two tackles over-enthusiastically and is booked. From the ensuing free-kick the ball is crossed and after a pass or two, Framlingham, score a second goal, a volley, spectacular of course as all volleys are. The bearded man questions the linesman about the referee’s decision and very helpfully the linesman tells him about the use of excessive force and not being in control when tackling. The bearded man doesn’t recognise this as a thing in football and the linesman tells him that there is an assessor stood near him who can explain and he in turn helpfully tells the bearded man about what you can’t do in the ‘modern game’. The bearded man is unimpressed and moans about making the game ‘non-contact’ and it not being like it was when he played.

About five minutes later Framlingham score yet again just to make a point and soon it is half-time. I and my accomplices, for a second friend has joined me during the first half, head for the tea bar. I buy a soft roll for £2 and a pounds worth of tea in a mug with a handle,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA which is much more civilised than a plastic or polystyrene cup. I have to take the roll outside to a barbecue where another lady gives me a sausage to complete my hot dog The two ladies indoors serving the tea and rolls fight over who gets the three pounds. Later, I speculate as to whether in the same way that some people get into the game without paying, others might bring their own soft roll in order to bag a free hot dog.

For the start of the second half we stand on the grassy knoll, which is a surprisingly good vantage point, although it’s slightly in the shade so it’s a bit cool and eventually we settle at the side of the goal now being defended by Debenham and their bulky goalkeeper, who is a vision in baby blue,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA but doesn’t cast a shadow over us despite his size. After their abject first half display Debenham have made three substitutions with the clumsy number 11 being one of them. Debenham look all the better for their mugs of half-time isotonic tea and their substitutes’ ‘fresh legs’ and attitude, and after just nine minutes of play are awarded a penalty, which is scored by their centre-forward whose first name is Paris. Debenham continue to spend time in the Framlingham half, but their hopes are dealt a severe blow when their pony-tailed substitute falls over and is accused by Framlingham players of diving. Jabbing of fingers ensues before a look of shock crosses the referee’s face and he brandishes his red card at the pony-tailed substitute, apparently for threatening behaviour towards his accusers from Framlingham.

Debenham’s hopes are pretty much dashed and whilst the game begins to meander, there is an unexpected outburst of frustration when following a foul by a Framlingham player the Debenham captain suddenly bawls “when are you going to do something ref!”  The referee looks a little taken aback. After a Debenham player generously heads the ball into his own goal to give Framlingham a fourth goal, the game enters the final ten minutes. Aware of much shouting from the managers we move closer to the ‘technical areas’ and witness a Framlingham substitute having a wee up against the back wall of the dug-out before going on; possibly a superstition or may be that second cup of tea at half-time was a mistake. Interestingly there is a high fence between the dug outs which could easily ‘hide’ a urinal if necessary.

Framlingham have a lot of young players on the field and the coach or manager or whatever he is provides plenty of words of encouragement. Mystifyingly I hear him several times shout “Call him Will” then surmise that he is actually shouting “Call him, Will”. Meanwhile the Debenham manager has a less positive vibe about him and is bemoaning his team’s luck for which he blames the referee. He complains that they should have had a penalty and then complains that the penalty they did score shouldn’t have been a penalty, which on balance seems a fairly pointless complaint.

Eventually time is called and there is some applause, but not a lot from the 128 people who were counted as having paid and those who possibly didn’t. A bit miserable of people not to applaud the effort; these players aren’t being paid fortunes to do this, not here anyway. The crowd drifts away and in making our exit we complete a circuit of the ground, barely stopping to admire some graffiti which looks a bit ‘urban’ and out of place in rural Suffolk.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Not a bad afternoon’s entertainment for a fiver.